In a ceremony at the White House on Feb. 25, President Obama presented the 2009 National Humanities Medal to William H. McNeill, the Robert A. Millikan Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in History.
"All of us are here to share a recognition of the importance of the arts and the humanities-pursuits and professions that enrich the mind, and nourish the soul, and strengthen the character of this country," Obama said. "They bring us joy. They bring us understanding and insight.They bring us comfort in good times and, perhaps especially, in difficult times in our own lives and in the life of our nation."
The award citation praised McNeill "for his pedagogy at the University of Chicago and as an author of more than 20 books, including The Rise of The West, which traces civilizations through 5,000 years of recorded history."
McNeill is known for interdisciplinary research that examines global historical patterns. His many publications include Plagues and Peoples (1976) and The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society Since A.D. 1000 (1982). He is a former president of the American Historical Association and a recipient of the National Book Award for The Rise of the West.
McNeill received his A.B. from the University of Chicago in 1938 and his A.M. in 1939. After receiving his Ph.D. from Cornell University, he joined the Chicago faculty in 1947. McNeill, a veteran of World War II, served in Hawaii, Egypt and Greece during the war.
Throughout his career, McNeill has remained committed to teaching. He helped design the Western Civilization core sequence at the University, and his Western Civilization: A Handbook is now in its sixth edition.
"Teaching is the most wonderful way to learn things," said McNeill in an interview with Humanities magazine. "You have to get up before a class at 10 o'clock the next morning and have something to say." In 1983, he received the University's Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.
The National Humanities Medal honors individuals or groups "whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities, broadened our citizens' engagement with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand Americans' access to important resources in the humanities," according to the National Endowment for the Humanities. Previous recipients include Toni Morrison, John Updike and Steven Spielberg.